Phamaly Theatre Company artistic director Ben Raanan isn't originally from Colorado, but he moved to the Centennial State with a clear purpose in mind: to find Phamaly.
"I come from Chicago and Cincinnati, and I love those places, but I came to Denver because there is nothing like Phamaly," says Raanan. "Places like Deaf West Theatre in California are working with people who are deaf, and the Prospector Theater in Connecticut is working with people who have Down syndrome, but a place where the identity is disabled is exciting."
The company was founded in 1989 by five students from the Boettcher School in Denver who were frustrated by the lack of theatrical opportunities for people living with disabilities. Since its inception, Phamaly has served individuals with disabilities of all racial, ethnic, gender and class identities in the creation of imaginative retellings of popular musicals and plays.
Now entering its 34th season, Phamaly is the longest-running disability-affirmative theater in the country and has gained a nationwide reputation for its award-winning professional performances that exclusively showcase the talents of actors with disabilities. Raanan always dreamed of being the artistic director of a disability-centric theater company, and revered Phamaly's mission.
When he saw the opening for a new artistic director, he leapt at the opportunity to interview for his dream job. When he applied for the position, he was asked to select twelve shows that he thought would be a good fit for the company's mission; Spring Awakening was one of the shows on his list.
And now, just under two years after Phamaly selected Raanan as the successor to departing artistic director Regan Linton, he is directing Spring Awakening for the company on the Parsons Theatre stage at Northglenn Arts.
"I really didn’t think I was going to get to do it so soon," says Raanan. "But there was a real yearning for it from many people within our company. Even if you've seen Spring Awakening before, I guarantee you've never seen it like this."
Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, with music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Spring Awakening went through an extensive workshop process in the 1990s before making its Broadway debut in 2006. The original Broadway cast starred Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele; the show won eight Tony Awards, including for Best Musical, and received the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
Set in late nineteenth-century Germany, the play explores the consequences of a group of schoolchildren exploring their sexualities within an oppressive society, and its themes have long attracted members of the disability community to the story. Raanan points to the 2015 Deaf West revival, which reimagined the show with deaf performers who performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language, as being an incredibly meaningful production for the community.
"When we think about art and disability, there are very few shows that have been as open to disabled people as Spring Awakening," notes Raanan. "People within our community have so much passion for this show because it feels like it is one of the few shows that belong to us. Although the original production had no actors with disabilities, it dealt with infantilization, which is something we are constantly dealing with. And the Deaf West revival was very important because it was about how to create a community through difference."
Raanan's research for the show centered on the ways people with disabilities have been treated throughout history.
"I didn’t do a ton of time-period dramaturgical research, because that aspect of the show doesn’t interest me as much," he says. "Yes, it’s important, but the setting itself sort of feels like Germany meets a My Chemical Romance concert. Instead of focusing on what exactly Germany was like, I spent a lot of time looking into the nuances of how the disabled community has been treated by those in power. I am crafting this show around the idea that if you don’t give disabled folks the chance to live, tragic things are going to happen."
The cast includes actors with all types of disabilities: physical, cognitive, intellectual and emotional. During rehearsal, performers will occasionally need to sit out or take the night off if their bodies are hurting. In other theater companies, asking for time to heal because of a disability often comes with questions from the creative team about why the performer is prioritizing their health over the show.
"Treating people as people is often considered radical in the theater industry, but it shouldn’t be," says Raanan. "It sounds obvious, but it's not in the theatrical community, or at least it hasn’t been historically. For example, I’m not going to shame someone for taking a night off. If someone needs to stay home or sit down when they are in pain, we accept that, and it’s okay."
Raanan worked with choreographer Jari Majewski Price to create exploratory dances that highlight the beauty of the performers' disabilities.
"There are not many spots when it is not all synced," says Raanan. "During 'Mama Who Bore Me,' we have one moment where we ask everyone to take their right leg and stomp. Well, we have both Madison Stout, who has mechanical legs, and Phoenix Mehta, who is blind, on stage; how are their stomps completely different? I like that we are exploring who the actors are as individuals, because it shows that there is not just one way a disabled person can look."
To help unpack the show's more intimate moments, Raanan recruited Samantha Egle, whom he calls "the best intimacy director in town." Raanan is acutely aware that many members of the disabled community have experienced a lot of trauma, so whenever he approaches a scene with sensitive subject matter, the first thing he tells the actors is to be kind to themselves.
"I'm very persistent about injecting laughter into a rehearsal room," says Raanan. "Ninety percent of the process is jokes, and ten percent is actual directing. People can confront negative emotions best when they are calm. Being in a musical is hard, so what’s the point in adding pressure to that? I've found that keeping the room as light as possible and leading from optimism is key."
which recently completed multi-million renovations that make it more accessible for Phamaly's disabled performers — opens on Thursday, March 23. And, unlike at many other theaters around town, masks will be required for those attending the musical.
"We have a lot of members within our community for whom COVID can’t be over," says Raanan. "Coming to Phamaly is the only place many people feel safe. Listen, I don’t love wearing a mask all that much either, but I’ll put on the mask if that means we can help people safely come out of their houses to experience theater."
Raanan hopes the story serves as a parable for audiences about the dangers of denying disabled people autonomy and illustrates the strength of their community.
"It might sound morbid, but there’s an energy to it that’s exciting," says Raanan. "My favorite moment of the show is 'The Song of Purple Summer.' After the world has gone to shit, the play should be over. All that is left are two dead friends. But then the lights come up, and out of nowhere we sing a song about people coming together. Through these characters' struggles, a bond has been created, and for me, that’s what the show is all about."
Spring Awakening, Thursday, March 23 through Saturday, April 8, various times, Northglenn Arts, 1 East Memorial Parkway, Northglenn. Find tickets, starting at $15, and more information at phamaly.org.